Adjusting Attitude

Originally Published: April 2000

Even when teaching methods are effective in helping a student understand concepts, something more subtle can leave him with the feeling that he is incompetent or that learning is boring. If you want your students to have a life-long love of learning and the self-confidence necessary to eventually learn on their own, it is worth looking at that subtle influence-the teacher’s attitude. This may come as a surprise to some. Emphasis is usually placed on the attitude of the student. If he refuses to try, the teacher may complain, “Well, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” And while that may seem true in some cases, it should not be used as an excuse-especially when a change within the teacher’s control could make all the difference.

Certainly, choosing effective teaching methods and interesting materials, as well as speaking positively, will enhance any lesson, encouraging willing participation and academic success. Generally, self-confidence will be a by-product of this approach, as well. But, not always. Underlying frustration or annoyance on the part of the teacher may affect her tone of voice and body language. And that, instead of her words, may affect the student’s attitude. For example, the teacher may be thinking, “You should certainly have understood this by now!” The student may then interrupt the tone of voice or unspoken signals as, “You’re so stupid, you’ll never amount to anything!”

A standard procedure for teaching a task that a student finds difficult is to break it down into smaller units. The student can then experience several small successes, resulting in finally achieving the original, single goal, and, as a by-product, a sense of confidence when facing future challenges. It is assumed, however, that the teacher carries out this procedure with patience and an underlying desire to help the student succeed. Unfortunately, if the teacher is impatient in manner or rude in speech, even though the recommended plan was followed and the student accomplished the academic objectives for that lesson, he may be left feeling incompetent and dependent. After a series of such experiences, the accumulated result is more likely to be a desire to avoid any challenges. The expected by-product-the self-confidence to approach a challenge by breaking it into manageable units on his own-may never be achieved.

Here’s an extreme example. My husband’s fifth-grade teacher exuded such a dislike and poorly-concealed anger toward him that he began suffering from migraine headaches. As might be expected, his schoolwork began to suffer as well. The following year the woman had a nervous breakdown due, it was believed, to a broken marriage. It was then that someone noticed how much my husband resembled the man who’d left his teacher for another woman! It would seem her personal problems had been transferred to an innocent child. By the way, his headaches slowly decreased in severity, and in a couple of years vanished entirely.

So, we have a dilemma. How do teachers prevent their own frustration or anxiety from adversely affecting students-since saying and doing the “right things” may not be enough? Because the subtle cues are a result of the teacher’s thoughts (even though they may be subconscious) that is where the change must take place. As scripture says, take every thought captive. (2 Cor. 10:5)

  • Don’t let past frustrations build up. Frequently recall the student’s good qualities. Begin each lesson with a silent prayer thanking God that He has a plan for the student’s life and asking for insight so that you can be of help.
  • Examine your expectations in light of your own personality. That is, decide if you have any unreasonable goals that contribute to your frustration or anxiety. Type A personalities, those with perfectionist tendencies, are more prone to being dissatisfied by the amount or quality of work completed no matter how much has been accomplished. The result may be personal stress that approval-seeking students interpret as, “I’ll never be good enough.”
  • Instead of focusing on the clock, keep your eye on the goal of the lesson. Recognize that it is okay to skip something else for the time being when interrupting the student might interfere with his ultimate progress.
  • As often as possible find something to enjoy about the lesson-even if it’s only an example that you add to it. Or share an example of a difficulty you’ve had and how you approached and accomplished that task. This positive attitude not only teaches students how to approach what appear to be unappealing but necessary tasks, but helps promote a love of learning in general.
  • Develop the ability to laugh at yourself. Students are likely to find your lack of perfection reassuring. And, laughter is contagious, so everyone benefits: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22)

Change in thinking may be difficult, But, at the very least, an awareness of how our attitudes can affect students can lead to changes in lesson plans. When frustration is high, another tutor could be asked to help the student, resources that the student can use independently could be assigned, or a temporary break from work on the anxiety-provoking objective could be taken by all. And as we try to practice patience, it helps to remember that we can “do all things through Christ which strengthens [us].” (Phil. 4:13)